Congratulations, you’ve reached your desired weight and the end of your diet! Or have you? The only reason I ask is because while we humans are great at weight loss, we struggle tremendously with keeping the weight off. Nearly 80% of people will have relapsed to their pre-diet weight within a year of weight loss. Within 2 years? 85%. And what about 3 years? A staggering 95% will have gained back all the pounds (and sometimes more) they worked so hard to lose when they were on a diet. Where does that leave us?
Turns out: diets have less than a 5% success rate, which, by any standards, is mediocre.
If that statistic isn’t depressing enough, here comes more distressing findings. Of those who relapsed to their pre-diet weight, 30% to 60% of them will have gained even more weight than they had prior to being on the diet. This symptom is also known as “fat overshooting”, which has been theorised to be driven by a faster rate of fat recovery relative to lean tissue recovery through disproportionately high hunger levels coupled with low post-diet metabolic rates. “Fat overshooting” can lead to a cyclical trap, where dieters often head straight back into another diet phase after packing back the pounds.
Weight cycling, or “yo-yo” dieting is often observed in chronic dieters — research shows that the frequency of dieting and weight gain over time are actually closely related.
The body’s “Self Defence System”
So — how is it possible that people who diet more often actually end up fatter? Well, it’s because dieting is treated by our bodies as “controlled starvation”, and it triggers a 3 pronged self-defence system in the body:
Prong 1 — Defend
Further weight loss is prevented through the slowing of metabolic rate.
Prong 2— Restore
A disproportionate increase in hunger levels in comparison to the energy required to restore energy balance and systems in the body lead to an increase in the rate of weight regain.
Prong 3— Prevent
A probable increase in the number of fat cells in the body prevents future weight loss if weight is regained too rapidly post-diet.
Body fat set point theory
Sure, the body’s “self defence system” sounds really fancy and all, but why does our body have this elaborate system set in place in the first place? A widely accepted theory of metabolism — the Body Fat set point theory — suggests that every single one of us has a level of body fat where our body naturally sits, and the body is as resistant to change as the grumpy old man who would like his sauce separated from his steak as it had been for the past 60 years of his life, thank you very much.
The individual set point is largely controlled by the hormone leptin, which responds to changes in the size of adipocytes (fat cells). When you forcefully create an energy deficit during the process of dieting, your fat cells shrink. The adipose tissue cells will therefore reduce their secretion of leptin. And ladies and gentlemen, this is where your body starts to go rogue on you.
In attempts of swinging the caloric balance to the positive spectrum, metabolic rate is decreased with a complementary increase in hunger levels — essentially turning you into a ravenous person with a slow metabolism.
Not a good combination, I would say.
Reverse dieting — the basics
Now, the above paragraphs are not meant to dissuade anyone from going on a diet — rather, it’s to prevent repeated bouts of weight cycling where the body’s self-defence systems are triggered continuously, resulting in greater fat gained after each round of diet when the weight is regained back in a short period of time. What a vicious cycle!
Enter “Reverse Dieting”, a strategy of dieting where calories are increased in a controlled manner over time to increase metabolic rate while minimising body fat gain.
It is important to note that the point of reverse dieting is not to lose weight. Its purpose is to either increase your metabolic rate so that you can maintain at your current body composition levels on a higher calorie intake, or to enable you to lose weight more effectively in the future.
Alright then, now that we’ve covered what reverse dieting is, and what it’s meant for, we can go into the specifics.
Reverse Dieting — the process
In general, it is recommended to increase your intake of carbohydrates and fats by 2% to 10% per week. The exact percentage of increase you decide on will ultimately depend on your specific goals — you can afford to be more aggressive if you just want to increase your calories intake as soon as possible and don’t mind the potential slight increase in body fat.
You will have to keep a close eye on your weight on a weekly basis: your body weight should not increase by more than 0.5% each week — if it does, you’re probably being a little too aggressive and should cut down on the percentage of increase in carbs and fats.
Reverse Dieting — the conclusion
And because I know you’re wondering: no, you unfortunately cannot increase your calories indefinitely. You should either slow down or stop the reverse diet when you are happy with the number of calories you’re eating, or when your weight has increased consistently for 3 weeks straight.
There you have it — a sane way of increasing your number of calories after a diet so you don’t get stuck in a vicious cycle of “yo-yo” dieting. Hopefully this article will stop you from going all “YOLO” (You’re Only Lean Once) and binging the moment you diet ends.
Thanks for reading! If you want an evidence-based approach to nutrition, a great place to start is learning how many calories you need based on your goals. You’ll like it — I promise!